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Labour slams government's 'incomprehensible' attitude to the appalling state of broadband in new-build homes

Tuesday, January 26th 2016 by Ellen Branagh

The lack of broadband in new-build houses is “symptomatic of the government’s indifference” on the issue, Labour has told Cable.co.uk.

Thousands of homebuyers all around the UK move into new developments expecting the best in modern living, only to find the broadband provision is either slow or non-existent.

Cable.co.uk has spoken to the residents of several new-build estates who are struggling with slow broadband connections and others who have been without so much as a landline since the day they moved in.

This is despite the UK's adoption of an EU directive stating every new home must be "high speed ready" by 1 January 2017.

Shadow digital minister Chi Onwurah said it is “incomprehensible” that new developments are built without access to new fibre networks.

The Labour MP – a former telecoms engineer – urged the government to give more guidance to homebuilders, and said other countries manage "to get it right” by using shared ducting for utilities.

Ms Onwurah said: “New-build is a huge opportunity to get it right. And to get it right with fibre.

“The incremental cost of laying fibre when you’re putting gas or electricity ducts in the ground is insignificant in comparison to digging up streets, so it’s a huge opportunity.

“And other countries manage to get it right – the shared ducting.”

Openreach 'leading on new-build fibre'

In September, outgoing Openreach CEO Joe Garner told BT's Delivering Britain's Digital Future conference that the company's ambition is to make sure that all new developments get a fibre connection.

This would be funded by BT where possible, but in some situations the company will work with developers to 'co-fund' fibre installation, he said.

Ms Onwurah said she spoke to BT CEO Gavin Patterson about the issue before Christmas.

"He told me that Openreach were leading on new-build fibre and he gave me a percentage or the proportion of the country he expected to be covered by new-build fibre, so the obstacles that new homeowners or people moving into new homes are having I just find incomprehensible really.

"There's so little that you need to do to make such a step-change. For a new home, having fibre to it really means they're futureproofed."

Openreach's ambition is that every new-build house has a fibre broadband connection

She said homebuilders had previously told her that having fibre connectivity in homes would increase their value, so it was in their interest to have it installed at the same time as other utilities.

"Really it is about government playing a co-ordinating and facilitation role so that this happens, because unfortunately local authorities have less and less powers in these areas, even though the government talks about devolution.

"I think it really is either symptomatic of the government's indifference, or a belief that the market gets it right, that there isn't more in place to ensure that duct for fibre goes in with the rest of the utilities."

Ms Onwurah, in a previous role as head of telecoms technology at Ofcom, authored the regulator's 2008 report 'Next Generation New Build: Promoting higher speed broadband in new build housing developments'.

"I looked at this in quite a bit of detail and even if there were just some better guidance there most of the utilities would be more inclined to follow it," she said.

"When people produce guidance it has quite an effect because often organisations and even buyers will say, 'have you followed all the government guidance on this?' and you have to say yes or no."

Case study: Sandmartins, Darlington

Residents of the 76-home Sandmartins development in Darlington say they are left frustrated by slow connections while their neighbours in nearby roads are served by both BT fibre and Virgin Media.

Steve Hodgson, who bought one of the new-build properties in June last year, said he enjoyed speeds of 100Mbps before he moved but now gets a maximum of 2.5Mbps.

“When all the family members are home then it’s game over,” he told Cable.co.uk.

“I had to cancel Netflix because I couldn’t use the service and I can’t use catch-up TV. It’s just impossible to do anything.”

Mr Hodgson said the poor connection also affects the ability of his teenage daughter to complete her college work.

“What’s blisteringly annoying is knowing that both ends of the build has up to 200Mbps broadband and I can’t even manage 2Mbps,” he said.

Emma Simpson, moved into the development on 24 April but was left without a broadband connection and phone line until 19 June.

“This meant eight weeks of running up huge mobile phone bills, work being affected and school work for 13 and 15-year-olds being affected,” she said.

“Even now the broadband is basic and struggles with the demand of a family of two adults and two teenagers.”

Case study: Coopers Edge, Gloucestershire

The Cooper's Edge development. Picture courtesy of Jonathan Billinger

Luke Edwards moved into the Coopers Edge development in Brockworth, Gloucestershire, in June 2014 and runs a campaign group calling for better broadband provision for the estate.

“There are 1,000 houses on the estate – it is the biggest estate in Gloucestershire – but I believe it is in the top five places with the slowest internet speeds in the UK.

“It is in its fifth year of construction and there are another five years left. Until recently there was no fast broadband at all."

The group lobbied the local MP, BT and Virgin Media and eventually BT installed a single Infinity cabinet which quickly filled up with 200 connections, he said.

“What makes me angry is that this estate was marketed as a place for families, for people working in the technology sector – I’m a web developer – but we can’t work from home. If we’re lucky we get 5Mbps on a good day.

“Personally I spend a lot on my phone bill because I find the 4G hotspot from my mobile is much quicker than our home broadband. It’s ridiculous.

“I did my research before we bought the house. We were told there would be a fibre cabinet put in within months.”

Mr Edwards said developers Taylor Wimpey told him that trunking was already in place on the development but it was not its responsibility to run fibre cables through it.

Case study: Portland Wynd, Blyth, Northumberland

Jon Gibson bought a house on the new Portland Wynd development in Blyth, Northumberland, after being assured that fibre broadband was available on the site.

But after moving in, he discovered that the site wasn't connected to Openreach’s network – leaving him and his family without so much as a landline.

He said that as a family of five, unlimited and fast internet is mandatory.

“My wife works from home and has been advised by her IT support that a faster connection would help her productivity so when looking for a new home, fibre was a big influence,” said Mr Gibson.

“Our builder advised all new homes would be fibre ready. This is the most important factor for us as it directly impacts our livelihood.

“Not only that, we now have mixed mobile reception and no easy way to dial emergency services.”

So what are the powers-that-be doing about it?

In June 2015, Hampshire County Council asked the government to give councils legal powers to insist that new-build homes have access to high-speed broadband.

Some councils have already brought in policies requiring new-build houses to have access to superfast broadband. All new homes built in the Cheltenham area will have to have access to the service following a motion passed by Cheltenham Borough Council last year and Cable.co.uk reported in May 2015 how Cheshire East Council was looking to make changes to its planning policy.

The idea has also had government backing – digital minister Ed Vaizey and housing minister Brandon Lewis wrote to council leaders last year telling them to ensure superfast access was considered as part of the planning process.

The Homebuilders' Federation (HBF), which represents the homebuilding industry in England and Wales, previously voiced concerns that the UK wouldn't be able to meet an EU directive on broadband access in new homes.

More recently, the federation said it is working closely with the government and Openreach to develop working procedures that would lead to the "best possible service levels" for house builders and buyers.

Cable.co.uk has approached the government for comment.

Additional reporting by Phil Wilkinson-Jones.

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